7 Ways to Prevent Aggressive Behaviors in Students with Autism

Aggressive behaviors are not an uncommon in students with autism. Because students with Autism have delayed language skills, they sometimes turn to aggressive behaviors in order to get their needs met. Frustration, confusion, anxiety and a perceived lack of control can all contribute to aggressive behaviors. Undeniably, one of the hardest behaviors to cope with, aggressive behaviors are undoubtedly one of the toughest.

1. Praise Good Behavior

Encourage the GOOD!

I’m sure you have heard this one a thousand times and you’re thinking, D-U-H! But in this case, it doesn’t hurt to reiterate that the first step in decreasing aggressive behavior is giving attention to the good. Try to catch your student doing well with managing their emotions. Do your best to be observant and catch your student when they do not use aggressive behaviors when frustrated, confused or anxious. Find a strong reinforcer for your student and use that to promote appropriate behavior.

Be proactive! Catch them being great! 

2. Make Aggression a Non-Negotiable

If your student gets upset and aggressive, immediately remove him or her from the situation. Always think safety. If you cannot remove the student in crisis from the situation safely, remove the other students as quickly and safely as possible. Once other students are safely out of the room, remove any and all furnishings that can be moved out of the student’s way in order to lessen the likelihood of hurting him or herself. Your goal here is safety. Be quick and be responsive. Learn the warning signs that your student shows you before they have an aggressive episode.

Aggression is a non-negotiable, you must be proactive, think fast, and move quickly

3. Remain Calm

Now it can be tough to remain calm if you have a student that is physically aggressive and posturing to hurt you, your other students, or themself. But, this is an important step. Remain calm and do your best to remove the student (safely!) from the situation. Keep a calm, level-head during an aggressive episode. Doing so will allow you to be a strong role model for your other students, and you'll make better decisions with a clearer head. The less chaotic an environment you can create, the better. It would be beneficial to have a crisis plan for any student that may have aggressive behaviors. That way you and any staff in your room will know the triggers, warning signs, and how to react in the even that your student has an aggressive episode.

Create a crisis plan, inform staff, and know how to use it!

4. Allow your Student to FEEL!

When the student is in a crisis situation, allow him or her feel their emotions. This is only AFTER everyone is in a safe place. If you can get your student to a time-out or safety room, let them drain their emotions. Allow them to scream, cry, hit, or kick whatever they would like as long as they are not a harm to themselves or anyone else. This process will be hard. It’s tough to watch a student that you care so much for go through something so traumatic. I’ll never forget the first time I saw one of my students go through this. It is going to be emotional. It’s going to bring you to tears.

When a student is in a crisis state, it is not the time to try and talk with them. Just let them call you every bad word they know. They will calm down. I promise

5. Process after the crisis is over.

One of the best ways to prevent future aggressive behaviors is to learn from the past aggressive behaviors. So once your student has had a minute to calm down, it’s time to process!

This is crucial as it is important to wait until the student is calm and ready to discuss what happened. If you are the one that triggered the aggressive episode, take a step back. Allow another staff member to process with the student.

If feasible, talk to your student about what happened. Discuss the situation in a non-judgmental, non-threatening manner. Try to tackle what happened, what the trigger was, and why your student had the reaction that they did. Try and show the student that you understand their feelings, but aggression in never okay. If your student is non-verbal, trying processing with them with their communication devices or use a social story to teach appropriate skills. If you are still unsure as to why your student has aggressive behaviors and they cannot tell you. Look for patterns. Maybe they have a meltdown every day at 11 because they are ready for lunch? Or maybe it is time for their medication. If you have the staff, try conducting a Functional Behavior Assessment. This will give you great insight into why your student does what he or she does.

Look for patterns. Find correlations. This will give you some insight!

6. Teach New Behaviors!

This step is going to be your new best friend! This step is one that is on-going if your student is prone to aggressive behaviors. Teach them coping mechanisms and appropriate ways to deal with their frustration, confusion or anxiety. Take time every day to teach your student coping mechanisms. Use what you learned in step 5 and identify solutions for your student. Coping mechanisms will be different for all students. For example, if your student has auditory sensitivities, teaching them to place their hands over their ears during a loud noise may help. However, this coping mechanism will definitely not help a student with visual sensitivities.

Find the appropriate coping mechanism for the student and practice it every day!

7. Do Not Reward Aggressive Behavior!

This can be a tricky step. Sometimes we inadvertently reward undesirable behavior. Let me give you an example. We have all probably been in the grocery store waiting to check out in line and we hear that cry. The yell of a child yearning for some sort of delectable that the grocery store geniuses put near the register just for this temptation. So, of course, the child yells, cries and throws a fit on the floor. To resolve the situation and probably decrease her embarrassment, his mother buys the candy, toys, insert whatever here, for her son. Now, I’m not judging. I know I have been there. There have been days when I would give my girls anything if I could only get a few minutes alone in the bathroom. But the problem here is we are actually increasing the likelihood of a future temper tantrums. This can happen inadvertently when we are overwhelmed, anxious, and over worked. It happens. Sometimes, it’s hard to see the forest through the trees. Teachers sometimes misinterpret the function of their student’s behavior and actually increase the aggressive behavior. If this happens, if you try all the steps above and your student is still having aggressive behaviors, take a step back. Try something new. Ask for help from your colleague if you have to. Checking in with a colleague may help you find the function of your student’s behavior. That way you will not accidentally reward the behavior you are trying to extinguish.

Good Luck!

I know you got this!

-Trisha